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September 3, 2020

Failure of imagination


September 3, 2020

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

In the past few months, the issue of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) has bubbled up a few times. However, regardless of how broadly the commentary addressed the contents of all seven subjects, the debate got hijacked with a narrow focus on a single subject while all other subjects fell by the wayside.

Today, I will focus exclusively on ‘Social Studies’ and attempt to show the general newspaper reader why the SNC is not as revolutionary as it is being made out to be and why that warrants that the government widen its review and solicit feedback from experts.

The SNC is being presented to the public as unprecedented with its attention to fostering “critical thinking” skills. The learning outcomes of courses are preferably expressed using a set of verbs ranked on a scale ranging from low to high levels of learning. At the low end are learning outcomes for which we use verbs like ‘define’, ‘describe’, ‘identify’, ‘list’, and ‘enumerate’. These can be achieved by rote memorization. At the high end are verbs like ‘understand’, ‘apply’, ‘synthesize’, ‘analyze’. Critical thinking is linked to learning outcomes on the high end of this scale.

I examined the Social Studies curriculum for grades 4 and 5 and counted 127 learning outcomes. Out of those, 116 (or 91 percent) learning outcomes are of the low-level variety, while only 10 (or eight percent) are of intermediate level. Only one learning outcome uses the verb ‘analyze’: associated with high level learning. Developers of Social Studies saw it fit to expect primary schoolers, who are generally performing below grade level in basic Math and literacy, to “analyze the importance of a constitution” (Social Studies, page 28).

The issue is not what will be taught, as much as how it will be taught. There is an utter disconnect between the lofty ideals – discovery and inquiry-based learning – proclaimed in the introduction sections of each curriculum document, and the poor work product that follows and, in turn, the reality of the implementation mechanisms (teachers and under-resourced schools) and what they are capable of delivering.

The SNC’s proponents have been giving credit for including entrepreneurship as a topic. The totality of learning outcomes on this topic include, define and describe entrepreneurship, the entrepreneurship mindset and types of entrepreneurial businesses, explain behaviours related to entrepreneurship, and identify each behavior and its usefulness. When all you are shooting for are low-level learning outcomes to define, describe, identify, recognize, etc., I leave it to the reader to decide how much inquiry, discovery and critical thinking these will elicit.

Curricula are designed to adhere to a triangle model, where the three corners represent: 1) learning outcomes; 2) instruction; and 3) assessments (tests, exams, etc). Instructional materials and teaching are aligned to achieve the specified learning outcomes, while tests and exams assess if students have achieved the desired levels of learning outcomes. If instruction is designed for learning outcomes different from those in the curriculum, or assessments test for learning outcomes that teaching was not designed for, you have misalignments that break the curriculum.

These are basic elements for curriculum design to work, not rocket science, and are known to every graduate student of curriculum design. Expecting a curriculum design expert to know this is like expecting a driver to know where the accelerator is.

The Social Studies curriculum is also jarring because the contents silos without a connecting thread and fails the technical requirements of a curriculum. It offers plenty of examples to cherry pick and demonstrate errors. Learning outcomes and activities are accompanied by URLs for web content, some of which do not work anymore. Others are plainly wrong. For example, in the section on History, the learning outcome “Describe the salient features of Greek, Roman and Gandhara Civilizations” suggests a BBC documentary on “Pre-historic humans in the new world.” Prehistoric humans preceded the earliest civilizations by about 300,000 years.

Suggested activities in the curriculum are obviously copied from other documents and present a master class in disconnect from reality. One suggested activity assumes teachers will have a torch and globe in the class to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth and the transition from day to night. Other activities are clearly designed for places where children have access to computers. There are visits to museums, making scrapbooks, collecting postcards, all good activities, but which will unfortunately not be possible in the vast majority of public schools.

An example of instruction happening without prerequisites from my experience at a non-formal school will help understand my concern. The teacher was explaining cardinal directions (North, South, West, East) without access to a map or compass. She first said North was the direction she was facing, then quickly abandoned it and replaced it with North is where a certain well-known shop outside the school was located. A less ambiguous way to explain this would have required a map and a compass. The way it was taught I would not be surprised if some children take North to be the direction to that shop from wherever they are standing.

Meanwhile, in the real world a district education officer I recently talked to confided that schools in his district could not afford to buy chalk. A few weeks ago, TabadLab estimated the cost of supplying soap to all schools at Rs450 million per month. The scale of our public-school sector is such that it makes the cost of simple interventions and programs prohibitive.

This leaves me little hope to expect support to acquire materials needed for the SNC’s suggested activities. Had curriculum developers taken the realities of public schools into account as claimed, we would see fewer such gaps between planning and implementation. This is the same kind of disconnect that has been translating into below grade level achievements by children, year after year.

Another aspect that showcases how little effort has gone into making this a locally relevant and developmentally appropriate curriculum is the topic of ‘human rights’ under the citizenship theme in grade 4. The learning outcomes include: 1) Define the term ‘Human Rights’; 2) Explain fundamental human rights; and 3) Differentiate between rights and responsibilities. Considering the horrible incidents of child abuse and violence we hear about every day, a relevant and developmentally appropriate approach for fourth graders would introduce children to their own rights and safety, building towards human rights in later grades.

The poor quality of the work product betrays the lack of internal review process, expertise and/ or seriousness with which the SNC was produced. Whether its proponents want to call the SNC a curriculum (as the cover pages say) or want to play hopscotch and refer to it as a “minimum learning standard,” the output does not justify the two years spent by (supposedly) 400 people working on it.

It also calls into question the claim that the SNC was reviewed by Cambridge Assessment International Education. If such a formal review process was conducted, it must have produced a report. May the public see it, please? Or is it a case of ‘involvement’ being used rather liberally, in the same way some peoples’ names were included in the list of 400 experts without their knowledge or consent, for having an informal chat over tea.

Reviewing the SNC is not a one-person job. Now that the SNC is accessible to the public, I urge stakeholders and experts, in particular, to review it and give their input. The government should push the pause button on its rush to produce model textbooks. Instead, it should take time to engage the public and solicit feedback and constructive suggestions.

If that significantly improves the SNC from its current form, a year’s delay in implementation will be well worth it.

We all want the same thing – better public schools – but rushing the SNC to schools as-is will condemn us to another 15 years of the status quo.